Making Physical Geography accessible ?



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Making Physical Geography accessible ?

  • A popular ‘urban rumour’ has it that physical geography is ‘harder’ than other aspects of geography. This workshop will explore if there is any truth in the rumour, what aspects of physical geography students and teachers commonly find ‘tricky’ and provide opportunity to trial practical activities and approaches that can help make physical geography inclusive, accessible and inspiring.

PGSIG On-line Questionnaire Survey 2017 (113 pupil responses) identified:

  • PGSIG On-line Questionnaire Survey 2017 (113 pupil responses) identified:
  • ‘Easier ‘Topics”
  • Rock Types
  • Erosion
  • Wave Processes
  • Coastal Deposition
  • Weather. Climate.
  • Hurricanes
  • Plate Tectonics
  • Drainage Basins
  • River Erosion & Deposition
  • Waterfalls
  • Flooding
  • Water Cycle
  • ‘Harder’ Topics
  • Rock Types
  • Geological Timescale
  • Weathering
  • Volcanoes
  • Earthquakes
  • Plate Tectonics
  • Drainage Basins
  • River Erosion & Deposition
  • Waterfalls
  • Flooding

PGSIG On-line Questionnaire Survey 2017 Summary of findings

  • 80% said they liked physical geography.
  • 20% felt it depended on the topic.
  • Confidence
  • Frequent mention of volcanoes and earthquakes
  • (reason = use of examples and case studies).
  • Lack of Confidence
  • Frequent mention of “complexity” of topics.
  • Not being able to see ‘what is going on’
  • Lack of connection to Britain

Previous Studies

  • Research into student accessibility and (potential) difficulties in accessing and learning PG is limited.
  • Birnie (1999) Journal of Geography in Higher Education
  • Physical Geography at the Transition to Higher Education: the effect of prior learning
  • Examined the impact of issues-based learning in Geography A level on levels of student knowledge and confidence in learning physical geography topics.
  • What physical Geography concepts and terms do not register with students?
  • % of 1st year undergraduate students unfamiliar with physical geography term.
  • Source Birnie (199) Figure2
  • What physical Geography topics do students find easy and difficult?
  • Source Birnie (1999) Figure 3.

An examination of Examiners’ Reports (i)

  • Study of A Level & GCSE examiners’ reports from 2013-2016.
  • AQA, OCR, Edexcel.
  • Lack of statistics to suggest popularity/answer quality of different topics as would have been found in legacy specifications.
  • Exception = AQA 2013 A Level GGO3
  • Exam Style: 1 structured question answered from “physical” topics and 1 structured question from “human” geography topics + 1 essay from any topic not yet answered.
  • 50% answered 2 physical and 1 human
  • 44% answered the Plate Tectonics essay
  • Two most popular topics overall were Plate Tectonics and World Cities

An examination of Examiners’ Reports (ii)

  • Remarkable similarity of comment in reports at both levels and across the years.
  • “..uncertain & inaccurate use of process terminology”
  • “…..candidates do not understand the word, “landscape”…..”
  • “… a misunderstanding of “climate”……..”
  • “…..a name does not equal a description.”
  • “…links between process and landscape not clear”
  • “…sequence of events in landscapes not clear”
  • “…landforms, strong; landscapes, weak.”
  • “…..physical factors not clearly understood”

An examination of Examiners’ Reports (iii)

  • Very specific comments on weaknesses in answers to individual topics.
  • Great similarity year on year.
  • Tectonics: earthquake scales confusion/inaccuracies; case studies lack tectonic detail.
  • Ecosystems: lack of names of specific plant or animal species.
  • Coasts: links between weathering and landforms not clear; process and landform sequences not clear
  • Ice/Cold Environments: role of meltwater not stated; weak biogeography; how process shapes landforms unclear.
  • Rivers: link between energy & process unclear; sequence from process to landform unclear; initiation of waterfalls muddled.
  • Hot Deserts: weaker biogeography; link between location and cause of desert conditions unclear; confusion of yardang & zeugen.

Examiners’ Reports (iv)

  • Specifically referring to A level answers.
  • “..little development on GCSE level”
  • “Standard texts, not specific topic texts, are being used”

It’s not in the text book!

  • ‘General’ texts lack depth and discussion of physical geography knowledge and examples
  • can lead to over-simplification, confusion and lack of confidence.
  • PGSIG survey of physical geography in A level textbooks 2012
  • King (2009), Anlaysis of Earth science in science texts, found:
  • 1 issue per page (errors, over -simplifications).
  • Teachers’ expertise and confidence to spot and challenge errors in textbooks is ‘fragile’.
  • Teacher

Activities to make physical geography accessible

  • Four different activities. Choose any one.
  • (notes for each are available to all)
  • 1. Try the activity (10 minutes).
  • 2. Discussion (5 minutes)
  • Does this activity improve accessibility?
  • Why/why not?
  • When would it be useful?
  • How might it be adapted or changed or developed?
  • 3. Feedback from each activity group to whole room (5 minutes each).


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